After years of back and forth – and pointed questions from Guilford County commissioners who at the time accused school officials of dragging their feet on an important safety matter – the schools finally have a signed contract with a provider to enhance emergency radio communications at the county’s schools.

Commissioner Alan Perdue, who served for years as Guilford County Emergency Services director before becoming a commissioner, said he was extremely pleased that the critical improvements were now progressing. At the Board of Commissioners meeting on Thursday, Feb. 23, Perdue said that he knew of several scary communications failures during situations at schools in the county.

“Just in the last week and this week, I’m aware of three instances where law enforcement made a call for help within our schools and their radios wouldn’t work,” Perdue said. “They couldn’t get out because communications capabilities were limited.”

He pointed out that the board had voted to allocate approximately $5 million to solve that problem.

“And it’s a real problem,” he noted. “I certainly appreciate everyone’s support in that effort.”

The Guilford County Board of Commissioners allocated $600,000 to study the issue and develop specifications for a request for proposals in 2019.  Since then, the commissioners have locked horns with school officials several times – asking why school leaders hadn’t put the $600,000 to use faster. In May of last year, the commissioners allocated an additional $4.4 million to make the improvements.  As of early February, the school system had only spent $63,250 of the $5 million, and Perdue and other commissioners are now expressing relief that that money is going into making schools safer.

One main method for enhancing communications includes constructing new antennas in strategic locations so a radio signal from anywhere in the school can make it through the often very thick walls.

The issue has been on the minds of a lot of county and school leaders in recent weeks because of the radio failures school security officers experienced – and because Perdue just gave a presentation on the matter at a national conference of county officials in Washington DC.

In a prepared statement Perdue noted the need for the system and the complexity of the job:  “Often times, due to a misunderstanding of the critical nature of in-building communications, building owners and developers push back on the adoption of codes and standards requirements due to added costs. Having a clear understanding of the critical nature that in-building communications capabilities can have on emergency responders, like EMS, Fire, and Law Enforcement, while performing their duties is vital. Education about these solutions known as Emergency Responder Communication Enhancement Systems (ERCES) is a key factor for all stakeholders including policy makers. If policy makers are not briefed on this important issue, it makes it difficult for them to effectively work with building owners and developers within their jurisdictions to ensure policies are in place for emergency responders to communicate inside buildings. Educational buildings are certainly one area where we expect our emergency responders to be able to effectively communicate when they enter a building to mitigate an incident. Everyone’s safety depends on it.”

Perdue currently serves as the executive director of Safer Buildings Coalition, the country’s only advocacy group and resource for everything related to solving the challenge of “In-Building Wireless Dead Zones.” The coalition advances model codes and standards that require building owners to incorporate these requirements in the name of safety.  That’s because the same issues can occur when regular citizens are making 911 calls from cell phones in buildings.  Currently, about 4 out of 5 calls to 911 are made from cell phones.

North Carolina Fire Code now requires all new buildings greater than 7,500 square feet be evaluated to determine if an ERCES is needed.